The French actress explains why her new film opens with a suicide bombing – and why her son made her take a part in Godzilla
Juliette Binoche has reached a point in her career, she says, when she wants to choose roles carefully. She has never been afraid to say no, famously turning down Steven Spielberg three times (for Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List) and walking away from the first Mission: Impossible film because she didn’t like the script. For her the director is crucial, but so is the message.
‘Most of my political engagement is in my choices,’ she says, by way of explanation. ‘You cannot speak out and do demonstrations and then choose films that are not related to that. I choose stories that I feel need to be told.’
And so her latest film, A Thousand Times Good Night, opens in Afghanistan, with her character, Rebecca, photographing local women who, we gradually realise, are making ritual preparations for a suicide bombing. As the bomber gets into a van to be driven to her death, Rebecca insists on going along, saying she wants to tell the whole story. In the end, she doesn’t get away quickly enough and is badly injured in the blast. When she recovers and returns home to her anxious husband and their two daughters, he says the stress is too much and asks her to choose between her work as a photojournalist, and her family.
It is a powerful, unflinching and ultimately very moving film that informs without being pious, thanks to a plot and cast that totally involves. (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau – best known as Jaime Lannister from Game of Thrones – plays Rebecca’s husband; the newcomer Lauryn Canny is utterly convincing as their confused, contrary teenage daughter.) The film is directed by Erik Poppe, who himself worked as a photographer for Reuters and for newspapers in his native Norway before becoming a film-maker. For further input, he called upon photojournalist friends such as Marcus Bleasdale, who took the on-set pictures shown here, as well as using his own, more recent work in Congo, Kenya, Afghanistan and Pakistan. ‘I have a wife and child now, which I didn’t have when I started in the 80s,’ Poppe says. ‘So I brought in my experiences from the last few years to this story.’
The dilemma isn’t unique to journalists, he adds, it applies equally to medics, aid workers and anyone else who feels compelled to work in dangerous places because they believe they can make a difference. ‘I wanted to ask how you cope with that, when you have a family. And what price is paid not just by you, but by the people around you.’
At first Poppe saw it as a Scandinavian film, but once it became clear that it would be easier to finance if it were in English, he decided to pursue Binoche for the lead. She has never made a secret of her aversion to celebrity gossip, suing French magazines for invading her privacy and gaining a reputation for being evasive in interviews. But she has also long been a vocal supporter of Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit organisation that campaigns for freedom of information, and against the imprisonment and intimidation of journalists worldwide. Along with her support of human rights in countries such as Iran, this seemed to make her a good fit. ‘I was touched by the story,’ she says. ‘Even though the script wasn’t totally there yet when I first read it, I felt it was compelling.’
We meet in the bar at Claridge’s in London. Binoche has come over from Paris to do the interview because, she explains, this is a film she wants to support. She looks effortlessly chic in dark jeans and a beautifully cut soft leather biker’s jacket, her hair short and spiky, her face adorned with only the most minimal of make-up. She has just come back from Chile, where she was filming The 33, about the 33 miners who were trapped underground for 69 days in 2010 (Antonio Banderas, Martin Sheen and Gabriel Byrne also feature). It was a good trip, she says, because her 20-year-old son, Raphaël, who is now at art school, was able to visit, and they went to the Alma and Paranal observatories together. ‘Seeing the stars in the sky was a life experience,’ she says. ‘I felt so lucky, I wasn’t shooting for a day, so I was able spend time somewhere I wouldn’t have gone normally.’
She loves to travel. When she was 16 she hitchhiked around Poland during the Solidarity uprising, to discover her roots (her maternal grandparents were Polish). She has walked to Machu Picchu, seen glaciers in Patagonia, and recently had a three-week break with friends in Antarctica. She has somehow combined this with a prolific acting career and bringing up two children. She has never publicly named the fathers of her children, but Raphaël’s father is usually reported to be André Halle, a professional scuba diver whom she met during the troubled three-year shoot of her 1991 film Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. Her daughter, Hana, 14, is said to be by Benoît Magimel, her co-star in the 1999 film Les Enfants du Siècle.
‘The way I resolved it at the beginning was to take my children wherever I was going, until my daughter was six, and her father didn’t want me to take her with me. Then, when my son was 10, I thought I had to ask him if he wanted to travel around with me, or whether he’d like to stay at home with his father, his friends and his normal activities – and he wanted to stay at home, mostly.’
Now, both of the children enjoy coming to see her when she is away, but she struggles with guilt, as all mothers do. ‘I think it’s necessary to work, to be happy and participate in the world. It’s what we’re here for. Yet we also have to give [our children] time and attention, of course.’
Her own childhood was difficult. Her parents split up when she was four, and she and her older sister, Marion, were packed off to boarding school. She was unhappy there and has often said that acting was a way of replacing the family she felt she lacked as a child. At the age of 15 she decided to complete her education at a school specialising in drama, moving to Paris, where she lived with her sister, who was then 17. ‘It was so exciting, coming from a provincial place in the countryside to the big city where there was theatre and I could go to the museums,’ she says. ‘But it was tough – we had to do our own shopping, cooking and cleaning.’
But she finished school and took drama classes at night, working as a cashier in a department store to get by. Her mother, a drama teacher, couldn’t afford to help out, and her father, a director of masked theatre, had gone to live in Colombia. ‘I was lucky to have a very nice first boyfriend!’ she says, laughing. She managed to get a few theatre parts, a couple of days’ shooting on some TV dramas, then small roles in films, including Hail Mary with Jean-Luc Godard, before finally getting a break in 1985 with Rendez-vous, which won the Best Director award at Cannes for André Téchiné.
Even then, she says, she almost gave up after doing three difficult films in a row in her 20s: as well as Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, for which she slept rough in order to prepare for her part as a homeless young artist, there was conflict on-set for both Damage and Wuthering Heights, English-language films that received mixed reviews but established her international reputation. It was only her drama teacher’s belief in her that stopped her from quitting. ‘I said acting is not for me – it’s too hard!’
When she won an Oscar for The English Patient in 1997, she was genuinely surprised, and ended up giving the statue to her young son to play with. He loved it, she says, until the gold started to peel off. ‘Scratch a little bit, no gold any more!’ she says with a laugh, fully aware of the irony. Eventually her American publicist got her a replacement, which she kept more carefully. ‘I learnt my lesson!’
Still, she has never seemed seduced by Hollywood glitter. She tends to follow commercial hits with interesting independent films, or low-paid but creatively stimulating theatre productions. In 2008, at the age of 43, she spent four months learning to dance with Akram Khan before performing alongside him in IN-I, a production that opened at the National Theatre in London before setting out on a two-year world tour. ‘I came to that sort of by accident,’ she says with a shrug. Her masseuse said she should dance and introduced her to Khan’s producer, ‘Then it all snowballed into this crazy idea of doing a collaboration.’
She likes ‘to go somewhere new’ she says, and fear is what tends to tell her she’s on the right track: she likes to feel scared about what’s coming up. ‘You have to go back to the root when you act, and from there you can create a character. Otherwise it doesn’t work, it comes from nowhere.’
I ask how the work has changed as she has got older, and she says she has found herself working increasingly with women. Her next film is with the Spanish director Isabel Coixet in Norway; after that, she’s off to Sicily to shoot a film directed by her son’s girlfriend. She makes no attempt to hide her 50 years. In A Thousand Times Good Night she wears little make-up, and the natural light shows every line – and she looks wonderful for it, with a face that is alive and full of expression. And she’s certainly showing no signs of slowing down.
Since A Thousand Times Good Night, she has starred in Camille Claudel 1915, a French film about the sculptor who was confined to a mental asylum by her family, despite showing no signs of illness. Then there was the rom-com Words and Pictures alongside Clive Owen, in which she plays a painter, and created all of the pictures shown in the film herself. ‘That was challenging, because my character had rheumatoid arthritis, so I had to paint with this illness.’
More surprising is her role in the forthcoming Godzilla, a big studio reboot that she says is pretty much all she was capable of doing after the intensity of playing Claudel. She was attracted by the gentleness of the director, Gareth Edwards, and by the fact that he wanted to show real emotion within the film (Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad also stars). But mainly, it was because her son loved Godzilla. ‘It was kind of a joke between us.’
Working on a big-budget film like this is ‘heavier’, she says. ‘You have people coming on the set, and you wonder what their job is. But it’s still a camera, a director, some words to say and a situation. The game is just the same, although somehow when there’s less money involved, there’s more freedom.’
Her preparations for a role are usually intense. For A Thousand Times Good Night she met and spent time with several journalists specialising in conflict and humanitarian issues, including the top American photojournalist Lynsey Addario, Sidsel Wold (the Middle Eastern correspondent for the Norwegian equivalent of the BBC) and the American photographer Zoriah Miller, who came on set to help with body language and showed Binoche how to handle the camera.
‘She’s a type of actor I love, because they get so devoted to the story,’ Erik Poppe says. ‘But she’s hard to work with. With other movies, I’ve been much more in control. This time I just had to let it go – and it worked fine.’
He marvels at her obsession with detail that the audience would never see or know. ‘What does she have in her pocket? What’s the name of the contact in Taliban who set up this story for her?’ He gave her the name of someone he’d been working with in Afghanistan, he says, but then she wanted his real phone number. ‘I need to have it right,’ she told him. ‘I need to learn that name and number, because Rebecca has it in her head.’
There is a scene where Rebecca is explaining pictures she has taken in Congo to her elder daughter. Originally, Poppe’s photos were going to be used, but Binoche remembered some shots Marcus Bleasdale had shown her, and felt they would be more powerful. One was a portrait of Mari, a woman who was left for dead after her lips and ears had been cut off by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a gang of thugs who for the past 25 years have been abducting children and forcing them to fight for them. It took months for Bleasdale to track Mari down via Médecins Sans Frontières – she has since had reconstructive surgery – to get her permission to use the image in the film, but Binoche was right. It helps her daughter – and the viewer – understand why Rebecca is compelled to do the work she does.
‘She was so engaged in the issues,’ Bleasdale says. ‘We worked together on the dialogue for that scene quite closely, because she really wanted to represent Congo accurately. She’s very studious and thoughtful about representing the people and the place.’
In order to be as accurate as possible, Poppe was determined to film as much as possible in Afghanistan and in Kenya, where Rebecca takes her daughter to visit a refugee camp. Some footage was shot at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, situated near the border of Sudan and Uganda, some in Kabul in 2012, just after the American citizen Sam Bacile had posted his anti-Muslim film on YouTube.
‘To be a Western film crew in Afghanistan at that time was not easy,’ Poppe says wryly. ‘I worked with the tiniest crew possible, and we’d set up, film for 25 minutes then move away and come back later. So we just kept moving around.’
None the less Binoche was indignant that she couldn’t go along. Her scenes were shot in Morocco later, and even a week-long trip to Syria that Poppe had arranged in order for her to get a feel for such places had to be cancelled when the situation there worsened. ‘She was really keen to do that, but in the end the financiers said absolutely not. They were terrified that something would happen,’ he says.
Sadly, shortly after I met with Binoche, fact and fiction uncomfortably collided when the German photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed and her colleague Kathy Gannon badly injured while covering the elections in Afghanistan. Niedringhaus was the third journalist to be killed in Afghanistan since mid-March, making the risks reporters are taking all the more clear.
‘It’s a job I feel very passionate about,’ Marcus Bleasdale, who had recently returned from the Central African Republic when we spoke, says. ‘I work closely with advocacy groups and policy makers, and try to use the work I create to influence and change policy. And I find that very rewarding.’
‘You want to give as much as you can,’ Binoche adds, when I ask why she put so much into the role. ‘The more you put your heart into it, the more you get into it, because you get attached, and you respect the people really doing this job. For them, it’s almost a mission.’
A Thousand Times Good Night opens on May 2. Work by Marcus Bleasdale, Lynsey Addario and Zoriah Miller can be viewed via their websites